Emergy and Society

Emergy and Social Systems

By Tom Abel

The scope of emergy and systems research envisioned by its pioneer, HT Odum, is remarkable.  Not only does it address energy and material systems of all kinds, including ecosystems and all life processes within them, but he also extended our comprehension of emergy and systems into the study of human social systems and the cultural information that maintains them. Today an extensive range of topics focused on the study of human society have been addressed by researchers in emergy and systems science.  For this short introduction, they can be only briefly listed by topic and key volume. Research has been conducted by Odum, his colleagues and students for each topic.

The summary below follows this structure, assembled from H.T. Odum, Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-first Century (2007).


Emergy and Society

The Empower Basis for Society (Odum 2007, p. 176) explores the great variety of past societies that self-organized within the limits of solar energy.  Foragers and farmers around the world have been sampled and modeled.  The emergence of non-renewable energy sources has extended food production as expanding populations have formed urban-centered systems.  The emergy supporting the diversity of human systems has been calculated and compared.  The emergent social hierarchy has been modeled and evaluated.  As always, Odum draws numerous non-intuitive conclusions regarding modern society and the energies and processes that support it.


Information and Culture

Structure, Information, and Evolution (Odum 2007, p. 221).  Information, and especially the information of culture, is of great interest to the study of human society, because culture is the information that maintains the structure and functions within any society.  This topic is placed within the more general context of the nature and function of information of all forms.  It is argued that information in genetics or culture is of great value because it perpetuates self-organization through time.  Rather than endless self-organization at all scales of nature, both genetics and culture preserve time-tested pathways of energy use and transmit them into the future, all at great savings of energy use and efficiency.  The ‘information cycle’ is a general model of this process.


Energy and Economics

Energy and Economics (Odum 2007, p. 252) introduces the application of emergy accounting to human economies and their supporting environments.  The system of humanity and environment is aided by the circulation of money, a special form of information.  Money is not ‘real wealth’, but is something that can be exchanged for goods, services, materials, information, or other items of real wealth.  Money circulates in countercurrent to real wealth in the many flows and processes in an economy, and it aids that circulation by immediate reward for the transfer of real wealth.  Many economic concepts have been reevaluated in light of emergy and systems thinking, including GDP, growth, sustainability, international exchange, and the imperial nature of capitalism.


Energetic Organization of Society

Energetic Organization of Society (Odum 2007, p. 281).  If the previous sections addressed individual production processes, this section introduces the concepts of whole social system self-organization.  Principles of political, economic, and social hierarchy are considered as modern societies have self-organized with the extensive use of non-renewable energies.  Unequal exchange between nations, warfare, and an emergy basis for international organization are considered and modeled.


Energetic Basis for Religion

Energetic Basis for Religion (Odum 2007, p. 313).  In an attempt to address the contribution of religion to the functioning of a society, systems principles are applied that detail the reinforcing flows provided by religion.


Partnership with Nature

Partnership with Nature (Odum, 2007, p. 332) describes a number of ways that good environmental policy can aid the self-organization of society with nature.  Ecological engineering is the term given to management that works with nature via the process of self-organization to produce desirable environmental outcomes.  This perspective proposes alternative approaches to the ‘problems’ of exotic species invasions, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and waste water treatments, each that understands succession and self-organization.  Study of Biosphere 2 and other self-contained systems provides insights for our natural human life-support systems of society and economy.


Climax and Descent

Climax and Descent (2007, p. 380).  Various models of global futures are presented, each based on principles of self-organization, hierarchy, and the paradigm of pulsing.  The peaking and eventual decline of fossil fuels is the single greatest contribution to projections for transitions to a lower-energy world.  Synthesizing and transmitting information to the future is a critical concern.